20 July 2016

The impossibility of equal concern: compassion is no substitute for justice

In recent months, terrorist attacks in different parts of the world have left scores of people dead and injured. Attacks have occurred in Paris, Beirut, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, and now Nice. After each of these episodes, North Americans are moved to express solidarity with the victims. On Facebook, such expressions generally consist of overlaying one’s profile picture with the colors of the French flag or posting a meme proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” or something similar. Alternatively, we link to stories about the tragedy for friends and family to read.

But, as many have pointed out with some embarrassment, we do not offer our sympathies equally to everyone. We are more likely to express horror at attacks in Brussels, Orlando, and Nice than at attacks in Istanbul, Beirut, and Baghdad. Part of the relative inattention to Beirut and Baghdad is due to the fact that, because these cities have so often been war zones, violent acts are not altogether unexpected there, sad to say. We have become inured to the chronic bloodshed in the Middle East. An attack on Brussels, however, catches us off guard. We are horrified because Brussels is a peaceful city in which violence on such a scale is rare.

But there is another reason for the inequality in our expressions of concern. Culturally speaking, Paris and Brussels are more like New York and Toronto than are Beirut and Baghdad. We tend naturally to sympathize with people who are like ourselves. Even educated Western cosmopolitans who castigate everyone else for being too parochial in their concerns tend to sympathize more with other educated Western cosmopolitans than with, well, everyone else.

Excessive parochialism is, of course, a bad thing insofar as it tempts us to ignore the evil and suffering outside of our own communities. Nevertheless, we must always bear in mind that a functioning society has diverse spheres of responsibility in which individual actors properly care more for the things that are closest to them. This is something Aristotle understood better than Plato. And Tocqueville had a better grasp of it than Rousseau. While we may aspire to have equal regard for everyone without discrimination, in reality we are limited creatures with limited abilities. Our capacity for compassion is thus limited as well. When my daughter falls and scrapes her knee, my compassion for her is much greater than for the little girl down the street who does the same. And that is as it should be.

The problem arises when we tie compassion too closely to justice. True, compassion is often a motive to do justice. My own decision to study politics as a young man was motivated in part by compassion for my paternal relatives who had lost their homes during Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974. But I quickly came to understand that compassion is no substitute for concrete policy proposals, and that justice is more likely to be accomplished by hard work and the willingness to compromise than by claiming that such-and-such is the compassionate thing to do.

Furthermore, if we move too quickly from compassion to justice, we are at great risk of miscarrying justice. Why? Because if I seek “justice” only for those with whom I am personally able to identify, I may be unwilling to take into account the competing claims of a party I find less sympathetic.

Justice must be based on equitable treatment under a law that applies to everyone. When it comes time to weigh various interests in the balance, our political leaders must make their policy decisions without bias towards one side or another. Importing the language of compassion into the political or judicial processes could tempt decision-makers to tip the balance in favour of those with whom they can most readily identify—and that, of course, would be nothing less than injustice.

This is cross-posted at First Thoughts.

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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca